Woolly Days recently rewatched a DVD version of Irishman Terry George's film Hotel Rwanda about the genocide in that country in 1994.
Terry George is a confederate of Jim Sheridan and he was interned in the seventies for links to Sinn Fein.
His movie invoked thoughts of the Holocaust and how the vast majority of ‘ordinary decent Germans’ could not or would not notice what terrors were going on around them.
There was an uneasy feeling that not only was it possible then, that it was possible still and that Rwanda was the modern world’s closest resemblance to the WW2 genocide.
Nothing I saw in Hotel Rwanda undid that feeling.
Wisely it did not try to generalise. Instead, it took a specific set of circumstances and personalised the experience. Don Cheadle played the real life role of Paul Rusesabegina, the Rwandan under-manager (the over manager was a white Belgian) of the Sabena owned Hotel Des Milles Collines (Hotel of the thousand hills of Rwanda and pronounced 'Mickeleen') in the Rwanda capital Kigali.
It was a four star hotel and it was a centre of international activity in Rwanda. Rusesabegina's key role was to "maintain the dignity of the hotel at all times". He was also a Hutu married to a Tutsi.
The story starts in early 1994 just before the assassination of president Habyarimana. The president had gone to neighbouring Tanzania to sign a peace settlement with the rebel Tutsis. On return to Rwanda, his plane which also contained the Tutsi president of Burundi was shot down at he tried to land. All aboard were killed.
The genocide started within 24 hours. The Hutu militant radio (also invoking the thousand hills in its name – Radio Television Milles Collines) led the charge with a fierce volley of hate propaganda. "The Tutsis must have killed our president, we must get revenge," they said. It exhorted all Hutus to weed out "the cockroaches" – their unmistakable code for Tutsis.
The situation was not helped when European peacekeepers were withdrawn after 10 of its Belgian number were killed by Rwandan militia groups. Memories of the then-recent deaths of Americans in Somalia, and bodies dragged around the streets of Mogadishu by taxi, were still fresh. The Europeans withdrew leaving the bloody stage to be defended by a small 250-man UN international group (mostly Pakistani).
The Belgian manager of the hotel retreats to corporate HQ in Brussels and leaves Paul in charge. The building is quickly transformed into a refugee sanctuary protected by a thin veneer of light blue – the small remaining troops of UN Canadian general Romeo Dallaire (played with genuine exasperation by Nick Nolte) working miracles with his minor army. The precarious support of the Police is maintained by adroitly placed bribes – a skill Paul has in abundance as a hotel functionary.
The 800 Tutsi refugees in the hotel survive by marshalling their overseas relatives to gain visas and by Paul's ability to get support from the head of Sabena to get the French (who were arming the Rwandans) to intervene.
All around them, the massacres take place. Between half a million and eight hundred thousand (no one is really sure) Tutsis died in three months. The world did nothing.
There are chilling resemblances to the current situation in Darfur, equally unloved and neglected by the West. The wheels of genocide turn again.
Terry George has done the world a great service with this noble and heartfelt work.
The real Paul Rusesabegina emigrated with his wife and family and is now living in Belgium, Rwanda's former colonial master.